By Erin Rodewald // June 23, 2016
(This article originally appeared at The Philos Project)
The door for Christians in Iraq is closing. That is the grim message received from Knox Thames, U.S. Department of State’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia, speaking on the systematic campaign by ISIS militants to eliminate ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East. A new urgency may be attached to this headline, but persecution of Iraq’s indigenous Christian community has been building for more than a decade. Mindy Belz chronicles this in her newly released, first-hand account, They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
A seasoned war reporter and editor of World magazine, Belz provides more than a sterile accounting of the atrocities meted out against the Christian community in Iraq and Syria after more than a decade of war. They Say We Are Infidels introduces the real faces of conflict, the human predicament attached to a region afflicted by deeply rooted sectarian hatred and violence.
Belz first stepped foot in Iraq in 2003 to report the stories few were covering. She did not go looking for Iraqi Christians, but over the next dozen years, it was the Christian community and its underreported plight that would draw her back time and again. “The courage of the American soldiers and Marines facing IED explosions or fighting door-to-door was readily apparent in nightly newscasts,” Belz said. “Few saw the heroism it took for a mother to take a child’s hand and walk her to school each morning, a shopkeeper to insert a key in a lock and open his jewelry store, or a businessperson to step up to a bank counter and make a deposit at the end of the day.”
They Say We are Infidels is the story of these ordinary Iraqi Christians living their lives under extraordinary circumstances. There is the harrowing account of Odisho Yousif, local point man for an international network tasked with collecting funds for persecuted Christians. Yousif himself was kidnapped, shot, and held for ransom before narrowly escaping his captors with the help of a Good Samaritan. Or the story of Eveline Aoraha, a Christian member of the provincial council in Nineveh Province in 2008, whose daily commute to and from her office in Mosul included multiple checkpoints and constant assassination threats.
Other characters making appearances in They Say We are Infidels include prominent clergy (think the “Vicar of Baghdad,” Canon Andrew White), teachers (Jeremiah Small), and global refugees, like Insaf Safou, who risk their own safety to return regularly to places like Erbil and Dohuk with envelopes of cash and words of solidarity for displaced and disenfranchised Christians. Belz unfolds stories of doctors, students, housewives, even the unassuming Christian caretaker of an ancient Jewish synagogue where the bones of an Old Testament prophet are said to have rested since long before Mohammed walked the earth.
One of the most compelling stories of all: Iraqi Christians have a history in the region that predates that of Muslims. Belz’s They Say We Are Infidels reminds us that Iraqi Christians are not recent transplants or outsiders. The Middle East is their ancestral homeland, the cradle of Eastern Christianity. Yet their security and permanence in a changing Middle East is anything but certain.
In 2003, with the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Christians were hopeful that a window of opportunity had opened that would reinvigorate the faith. There were an estimated 1.2 million Christians living in Iraq then and many were optimistic about the prospects of shaping and participating in a more inclusive government. Today, fewer than 300,000 Iraqi Christians remain. They have been driven from their homes by radical jihadists, kidnapped, sold as sex slaves, tortured, beheaded, and crucified. In its ruthless campaign to cleanse the region of all traces of Christianity, ISIS also has destroyed Assyrian archaeology and priceless antiquities.
For many Iraqi Christians, the hopes and dreams they held in the early days of the U.S. occupation have all but vanished. “It’s only a matter of time – thirty years, and no Christians will remain in the whole region,” predicts Archbishop Avak Asadourain, primate over the Armenian Church in Iraq.
Yet despite the prolonged war, the sectarian violence, and the brutality of ISIS, the flame of hope has not been extinguished fully. In They Say We Are Infidels, Belz recounts a recent interview with Antoine Audo, a Chaldean Catholic bishop from Aleppo who continues to campaign for peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East: “It’s important for us as Christians to be alive in the original lands of our fathers in the Middle East,” he said. “We have a long history of living together with Muslim people. It is Christianity who has the Arab culture, and it is very important to have Christian-Arab presence. If we lose it, I am convinced it will be a big loss for Islam, too.”
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last spring, Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Mosul (herself a victim of ISIS) echoed those sentiments. “Christians have – for centuries – been the bridge that connects Eastern and Western cultures. …Through our presence as Christians, we’re called to be a force for good, for peace, for connection between cultures.”
Despite a recent uptick in violence on the streets of Baghdad, small but significant steps have been taken here in the U.S. in recent weeks that may be giving oxygen to the flame of hope in the Iraqi Christian community. In addition to the U.S. Statement Department’s declaration of genocide in March, important legislation is moving through Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved H.R. 1055 earlier this month introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) that strengthens the nation’s International Religious Freedom Act. Among other measures, the new legislation requires the State Department to designate countries of particular concern (CPCs) each year, including a new classification for non-state actors such as ISIS.
Similar legislation sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is making its way through the Senate that would amend existing law to improve the ability of the U.S. to advance religious freedom globally through enhanced diplomacy, training, counterterrorism, and foreign assistance efforts.
Also in May, the House of Representatives passed two important amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017 (H.R. 4909) that will strengthen protections against victims of genocide. Introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), these amendments will help Christians and other minorities remain an essential part of the Middle East for the foreseeable future. “First, the United States strategy in Iraq now includes securing ‘safe areas’ so that genocide victims can return to their homelands,” notes Fortenberry. “Second, a new provision empowers minority groups, including Christian and Yezidi security forces, in the integrated military campaign against ISIS.”
Many supporters of persecuted Christians have praised these amendments. Tourfic Baaklini, president of In Defense of Christians (IDC), a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that works to preserve and protect Christians in the Middle East, has said, “The restoration of indigenous religious and ethnic minority communities to their ancient homelands should be a priority for the United States and the international community. As ISIS is driven back in Nineveh Province, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Yezidis, and other groups must be restored to their historic lands in the Nineveh Plain.”
To restore, repair and rebuild the Christian community in Iraq remains a fervent goal for a people who have called this region home for thousands of years. It is to this end that Belz lends her talents in They Say We are Infidels. In its pages, she recounts the events of more than a dozen years of war – the fall of Saddam, the rise of al-Qaeda, the promise of elections and a newly formed government, the surge, the departure of U.S. forces, the rise of ISIS, and genocide. Her observations and analysis of political and military victories, missteps, and missed opportunities confirm her credentials as a hardened war correspondent. But it is her attention to the flesh-and-blood stories of ordinary people that transforms the cold, impersonal statistics of war into the heartfelt and impassioned stories of a persecuted yet hopeful people.